Making Victorian Chelsea Boots
Updated: Nov 11, 2021
My most recent project was a pair of Victorian inspired Chelsea boots! I absolutely love them, and this article will explain the process of making them from start to finish! For more information on shoemaking- tools, techniques, materials, and resources, check out my “I Made Shoes!” article as well as my “Victorian Ballet Flats” article.
Why did I make my own boots? As a DIY addict, my attempts to buy shoes or boots like any ‘normal’ person never seem to work out. Either I can’t find anything that I like, or I order boots online only to have them not fit. I finally took these as ‘signs’ that it was time to try something I’d wanted to try for ages: making my own boots.
But where to begin?
Everyday Boots, But Make it Victorian?
I wanted a pair of everyday leather boots that also had a bit of classy historical flare. I also needed to make a design suitable for a relative beginner as well as something that my flatbed vintage sewing machine could handle.
I was inspired by modern Chelsea boots, and by something else that I was very surprised by. In reading my favourite shoemaking resource, Women’s Shoes in America, I was shocked to discover that “Chelsea boots” ie. boots with elastic side gores, have been around since the 1800’s!
I loved these pictures of Victorian boots because they combined the serviceable, practical and wearable elements of modern Chelsea boots with a classy, more dressy shape. Because let’s face it: most modern Chelsea boots are shaped like work boots. If that’s the look you’re into, go for it, but for me and my wardrobe, I needed something a little more dressy and with a more feminine shape.
I was especially inspired by a pair of boots from my book that were ankle length and completely flat. First of all, I am a fan of flat shoes and boots, and second of all, I only had my flat shoe lasts at the time of this making process. Finally, I think there is something quintessentially “Victorian” about flat ankle boots.
But what materials would I need to make this kind of boots?
What Materials Do You Need to Make Boots?
First, let’s talk about materials. I used a lovely black veg-tanned calfskin for the outer layer of the boots, and a veg-tanned sheepskin for the lining and stiffeners. I already had some thicker leathers on hand for the insole and outsole of the boots. Finally, I ordered some wide black elastic from Amazon for the gores. The ideal elastic for these boots would be woven elastic which is available from specialty websites. For the tools I used, check out my “I Made Shoes!” and “Victorian Ballet Flats” articles.
Now how on earth would I create a pattern from scratch for these boots?
Patterning my Victorian Ankle Boots
For this shoemaking project, I wanted to experiment more with historical shoe pattern drafting techniques. I found a wonderful Victorian shoemaking book, that details not only how to draft many different styles of Victorian boots and shoes, but also gives numerous pointers on the construction of said footwear.
This book begins with instructions on how to create a “standard” footwear pattern, which is the equivalent of a basic bodice block, but for your shoes. This is taken based on your particular shoe last. In my case, I used masking tape wrapped around my last to get this mould.
Then I used the book's directions to turn this shoe standard into a boot standard, but, not sure if it was “correct”, I double-checked this with a different, more modern approach. I found a very helpful, free website called the “Shoe Pattern Generator” in which you take detailed measurements of your foot and calf, input them into the site, and then select which style of boot or shoe pattern you wish to create. The website then spits out for you a custom pattern for your shoes, complete with style lines. The lines are all straight, so after printing, you have to curve the lines where necessary, but it was so helpful to find this resource, and I plan on using it again to make myself a pair of Oxfords.
I used the “Koleff ankle boot standard” from this site, and after printing it off at 100% scale, I simple added my style lines for a side-gored boot, which was really quite simple. After adding all my seam allowances, I was ready to go! For more information on seam allowance for shoemaking patterns, read my “Victorian Ballet Flats” article.
I decided to add one special, Victorian touch to my boot pattern, and that was adding a toe cap to the front of the boots. This is seen a lot on Victorian Chelsea boots, and I think it makes these boots more unique and historical in appearance.
I made on mock-up for these boots out of fabric, and was ready to cut into my leather!
Boot Cutting Out and Prep
I cut out my leather pieces by first tracing them out with a silver pen, and then using my clicker knife, which is especially designed for cutting out leather patterns. I was sure to flip over the pattern pieces when cutting out the second boot. I cut out black leather outers, natural coloured linings, and the stiffeners, which are the interfacing for the boot. For more information on stiffeners, go to my “Victorian Ballet Flats” article.
Now it was time to prep my pieces: I skived most of the edges, and then used double sided shoemaking tape to fold over the edges of leather where necessary: like on the sides of black leather that would be stitched to the elastic gores. This isn’t strictly necessary, but gives a more polished appearance to the final boot. Now on to the sewing of the uppers, which turned out to be the most difficult part.
Making the Victorian Boot Uppers
I used my vintage sewing machine to stitch these boots, which struggled, for two reasons. The first is because it is a flatbed machine, which means that especially for boots, it can be tricky to get the machine into all the nooks and crannies of the upper boot, and a strict “order of events” must be followed. Secondly, the final top-stitching of the boot was very thick and tricky to get through. More on that in a moment.
I started by sticking the elastic gores to the opening on the side panels with double-sided shoemaking tape. Then I stuck the lining to that, also with the tape, and finally stitched around the edge of the gore.
Then I sewed the centre-back and centre-front seams of the lining. I repeated this for the black outer layer, and used shoemaking reinforcement tape to strengthen all of these seams. Then, I sewed on the toe cap to the black outer layer of the boots.
Now it was time to finish the top-line of the boots. I turned under the top edge of the black leather, stuck it to the lining layer, and top stitched. This was the hardest point for my machine, but I got through it. Finally, I snipped close to this stitching to trim the lining down.
Now it was time for lasting the boots.
Now Comes the Fun: Lasting
For a detailed description of shoe lasting, read my “Victorian Ballet Flats” article. The first step of lasting was creating the insole which I cut out of thick shoulder leather, and lightly nailed to the bottom of my lasts.
I began the lasting process placing nails at the front, back, and sides of the boot, through both layers. This served to get the overall boot balanced and centred on the last.
Then I removed these nails one by one and replaced them just through the lining. I went on to completely last the lining, and glued it down with water-based contact cement. Then I trimmed off the bulky leather on the bottom of the last.
Next I applied the stiffeners, which are known as the “toe puff” and “heel counter”. I lasted these in the same way as the lining, and applied my "Hirschkleber" glue, and shoemaking tape along the top edge. Finally, I lasted the black outer layer, glued it down, and trimmed.
The Finish Line: Soles and Heels
I created a spring heel for these boots, which is a historical type of low heel which is sandwiched between the bottom of the boot and the outsole. I cut a heel lift out of thick leather which I tapered down to nothing at the straight inner edge. I also created a “rand” or heel-cup which was a strip of leather which I also tapered at the inner edge, and cut notches into so it could curve around the heel. Then I glued this on top of the heel lift. Finally, I wrapped the outer edge of this heel lift in black leather.
I cut out my boot soles, bevelled the edges, and sanded and burnished the edges. Then I glued the heel lifts soles in place with contact cement. For a final touch, I dyed the soles black.
How Did They Turn Out?
I love these boots! They took just over a week to finish, and they feel quite comfortable, although I might add an insole to better support my arch.
They are great everyday boots, while still having a dressy look. It is so satisfying to see the improvement in this, my third pair of shoes, compared to my first pair.
Learning and Inspiration
Materials and Tools
https://www.vickydincecco.com/collections/all (Historical shoe lasts)
https://etsy.me/3nMnkCu (Lasting nails)
"Womens Shoes in America, 1795-1930"
"Handmade Shoes for Men"
"The Art of Boot and Shoemaking: A Practical Handbook Including Measurement, Last-Fitting, Cutting-Out, Closing, and Making"
"Designing, Cutting and Grading Boot and Shoe Patterns, and Complete Manual for the Stitching Room, by an Expert of Thirty Years"
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org